Signs of Turnaround at L.A. Zoo

Word last week from leaders of three top U.S. zoos that the Los Angeles Zoo is making progress was the first official validation of the hard work done lately at the Griffith Park complex and in City Hall. Much remains to be accomplished in reviving the 30-year-old facility, but the path ahead now seems clear.

In recent years, the zoo has churned through a series of directors. Squabbling among the city, the zoo and the zoo's private fund-raising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., didn't help. Confused about its priorities, the zoo was slow to spend the money it had, and GLAZA was criticized for not raising enough. Worst of all, the zoo's facilities were in disrepair, its employees dispirited and its animals languishing. A series of preventable animal deaths were in part responsible for a poor review by an outside panel of zoo experts.

But last week, zoo directors from Seattle, Atlanta and Cincinnati completed a three-day tour of the Los Angeles Zoo and pronounced it much improved. What has made the difference? The appointment of Manuel Mollinedo as the zoo's top administrator has helped enormously; his enthusiasm, competence and attention to detail have fueled progress. In addition, the City Council last fall approved a new organization plan for the zoo. Instead of being part of the city Recreation and Parks Department as it has been, it will be administered by a new, independent Zoo Department. That change, yet to occur, holds the prospect of greater efficiently.

What remains is for the city, Mollinedo and GLAZA to make good on their promises and plans. The city must promptly implement the reorganization plan and continue to make funds available for improvements at the zoo itself.

GLAZA's future is unsettled. Some city and zoo officials are frustrated by what they regard as GLAZA's inability to raise the money for needed improvements. For their part, GLAZA officials say the zoo and city officials have been unclear about their needs and expectations.

The city should make clear to GLAZA the parameters of projects that it wants the support group to take up. Reasonable fund-raising targets and priorities should be set, and city officials should review GLAZA's record in operating zoo concessions. If they conclude that another operator could generate more revenue, they might decide to leave GLAZA to focus squarely on outside fund-raising. Whatever the details, a key next step for continued progress at the zoo requires a more profitable and harmonious relationship with GLAZA.

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